Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
Russia ‘s direct role in financing the separatists was confirmed for the first time when separatist leader Denis Pushilin told a state news agency that Kremlin powerbroker Vladislav Surkov had promised to raise wages in the Donetsk “People’s Republic”. Pushilin’s meeting with Surkov came amid fresh speculation about the Kremlin’s waning influence in the separatist-held areas.
Wages in Donetsk being raised in Moscow
On October 10, the Tass news agency published a text with the title “Surkov promises Pushilin to raise wages in the DNR”. This is probably the first time that Moscow’s role in bankrolling the separatists has been openly acknowledged in state media. The headline stood over an interview with Pushilin and political scientist Alexei Chesnakov, who sum up a meeting between Surkov and Pushilin in Moscow earlier the same day.
According to the “DNR” interim leader, Surkov praised Pushilin’s leadership in the transitional period since the August 31 assassination of separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko and promised Russian support for security and improving living standards. “A number of decisions will be taken soon, that allow to significantly raise wages for a number of groups of citizens” Pushilin was quoted as saying.
On October 16, Pushilin duly announced that public sector wages will rise by ten per cent on November 1. However, he did not speak of Russian subsidies but claimed that fiscal reforms and a significant rise in production had improved the state budget.
Experts believe that both “People’s Republics” in eastern Ukraine heavily depend on Russian economic subsidies. Hrihoriy Tuka, Ukraine’s deputy reintegration minister, said in January that Moscow is paying up to 35 billion roubles per year for each “republic” – almost 1 billion euros.
Pushilin also said that Surkov has accepted an invitation to come to Donetsk before the end of this year. While Surkov has been rumoured to visit Donetsk and Luhansk numerous times in the past, this would be the first time that a Russian government official openly visits the separatist-held areas.
The Kremlin did not confirm nor deny the meeting. Asked about the wage rise, spokesman Dmitry Peskov only said that the Kremlin welcomes everything that improves living conditions and continues to send humanitarian aid to Donbass.
Average wages and pensions in the separatist-held areas are between 5,000 and 10,000 roubles (66 and 132 euros), significantly lower than in the neighbouring government-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine (see Newsletter 29).
Chesnakov denies fresh speculation about Surkov
The October 10 meeting came on the same day as a report by the RBC media group, which speculated once again that Surkov was losing influence as his Kremlin directorate was being reformed and many people had been sacked.
Alexei Chesnakov, the political scientist and close Surkov confidant, on October 15 denied the report and said that the reform was only meant to make the administration more efficient.
Chesnakov explained that the Presidential Administration’s Directorate overseen by Surkov has been renamed Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation (it used to be called Directorate for Cooperation with the Commonwealth of Independent States). It contains a new Ukraine department that “will hardly please the Kiev regime”. He confirmed that inside the Directorate, the People’s Republics” will be overseen by Alexei Filatov, who previously was responsible for the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Chesnakov admitted that some staff had been replaced but insisted that the Directorate continues to work with the same number of staff – 28 people – and the same budget. According to the Kremlin website, Oleg Govorun, who also represents Russia in the Political Working Group at the Minsk talks, remains the Directorate’s head.
No competition in elections because of Surkov’s weakness?
The October 10 RBC report had cited sources as saying that because of the Kremlin’s weak organization, Moscow had given up much of its direct control over preparing next month’s elections in the “People’s Republics”. Alexei Makarkin, a well-known Moscow political scientist, argued that the lack of competition in those elections was a direct consequence of the troubles in the Kremlin. There is no Governor-General and no unified control centre,” he was quoted as saying.
Another political scientist, Valeri Solovei, pointed out that Russia’s overall influence might not be affected, because the influence of Russian security services, first and foremost the FSB, compensates any weakening of the Kremlin’s role in the separatist-held areas.
The separatists are gearing up for parliamentary and leadership elections on November 11. In both “Republics” the incumbent separatist leaders are expected to win easily after all potential competitors did not run or failed to register as candidates. Veteran separatist leader Pavel Gubarev, the last likely opposition candidate against Pushilin in the “DNR”, was denied accreditation on October 5 after election officials said they found fake signatures supporting his candidacy.
As a result, Pushilin is running against four more or less unknown candidates, while Luhansk separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik is running against three similarly little-known candidates.
Ukraine and her western allies have condemned the elections as violating the Minsk agreement, which stipulates holding local elections under Ukrainian law. However, Russia and the separatists argue that the elections are necessary to avoid a power vacuum and claim that they do not contradict Minsk because they are not local but “national” i.e. in the framework of the “People’s Republics”. However, the Minsk agreement does not foresee any “republics” and speaks merely of Certain Areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.